The Food On Our Tables: The flaws of U.S. agricultural policy
Most of us are happy with the food available in our markets, which to a large extent offer products of United States agriculture. As taxpayers we help to support agriculture through direct payments, or crop subsidies, paid to farmers. Many indirect subsidies, like government-sponsored research, crop insurance and import quotas on crops like sugar, also benefit our farmers. Such subsidies, however, have an unintended social consequence; they allow American farmers to grow an abundant crop and to sell it at prices often below world food prices—an advantage for us, a disadvantage for others.
To see the effect of the policy on a neighboring nation, consider Mexico, where the main crop of family farmers is corn. Mexican farmers have no comparable subsidies, and without them they cannot compete with U.S. farmers whose corn is exported to Mexico. As a result, many Mexican farm laborers cannot find work in their home country. Many of these come to the United States looking for work. Studies show that poverty fuels migration.
Nationwide, direct payments to U.S. farmers in 2008 will total about $5 billion. In 2007, North Carolina farmers received some $66 million in direct subsidies, which placed the state 23rd among the 50 states. Not all farms and farmers receive direct payment subsidies; two-thirds of U.S. farmers do not grow subsidy program crops. And there is an income limit in the 2008 Farm Bill; a person or a legal entity, like a corporate farm, with an adjusted gross income over $750,000 averaged over the previous three years, is not eligible for a direct subsidy.
Farm Laborers From Mexico
Every year thousands of farm laborers from Mexico migrate to North Carolina with temporary visas, called H2A visas, approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. Under the H2A program, agricultural employers can hire foreign workers if they can show that they tried to hire local workers first without success, and that the work is seasonal or temporary. North Carolina’s farmers are among the largest users of this temporary agricultural visa. Though H2A visa holders are temporary residents, they are in the United States legally. Studies show that about 48 percent of foreign agricultural workers in the United States hold H2A visas. That means that more than half of our foreign agricultural laborers are here illegally.
Part of what is perceived to be an illegal immigration problem is thus of our own making, as taxpayer-financed agricultural subsidies trigger a migratory flow. This problematic result should generate in us a sense of responsibility toward those we have, perhaps unconsciously, lured over our borders.
Federal and state laws provide protections for migrant farm laborers on issues that include wages, housing, health and safety. Since migrant farm workers are isolated from the greater community and depend on their employers for basic housing, transportation and wages, workers are understandably loath to point a finger at their employers when abuses under the law occur. And many, particularly undocumented farm workers, are unable to take advantage of tax-supported government services like Medicaid and food stamps.
Whether migrant workers are here on H2A visas or are here illegally and undocumented, their labor remains vital to our healthy farm production. Migrants contribute to the availability of the food on our tables.
Many of North Carolina’s migrant labor camps are well organized, clean and safe, while others are not. The North Carolina Department of Labor maps and registers migrant labor camps and conducts pre-occupancy housing inspections before the camps can take in workers. Follow-up inspections are conducted to ensure compliance with the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. North Carolina’s labor department employs three full-time compliance inspectors, but there are about 1,600 registered camps throughout the state. The number of unregistered camps is not known, but could be in the thousands. Despite the department’s good efforts to ensure employer compliance with the law, abuses will and do occur.
Along with the efforts of the North Carolina labor department and the state’s Department of Agriculture, the farm-worker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina conducts an outreach initiative for migrant agricultural workers, partly through the state’s Witness for Justice Program. Legal Aid attorneys administer the program, and an unpaid cadre of law students and members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps conduct tours of the labor camps. The program solicits citizen volunteers through word of mouth and church bulletins. The initiative provides migrant farm workers with information that explains their rights. The citizen volunteers play an informational role; they enlighten those not professionally involved in the issue about what is learned on visits to the camps. The initiative allows community members with an interest in social justice to develop a better understanding of immigration issues. As a citizen volunteer myself, I was able to get a better look at where our food comes from and what happens to those who harvest it.